The Democratization of American Christianity
Apocalyptic themes long resonant in the popular culture reappeared laced with Jeffersonian political thought, even heavy doses of Jefferson's prose; traditional resistance to elite positional codes and to local religious taxes took on the ideological imperative of Enlightenment attacks against a state religion and against the use of all religious creeds. The revolution in print late in the eighteenth century allowed ordinary people to gain smatterings of knowledge about that which had been the exclusive preserve of the educated. Such egalitarian circumstances also gave freer reign to subterranean folk beliefs and to unregulated displays of fervency and religious ecstasy. Under such fluid conditions, it was increasingly difficult to differentiate between science and superstition, naturalism and supernaturalism, medicine and quackery. It was a golden age both of empiricism and of imposters and counterfeiters. This blurring of worlds is superbly illustrated in the rhetoric of religious supematuralism and egalitarian militancy in the Methodist itinerant Lorenzo Dow.
'Crazy' Lorenzo Dow played a significant role in the growth of American Methodism even as he operated independent of the movement itself. Licensed or not, Dow barnstormed throughout the republic at a frenetic pace. One observer may have exaggerated only slightly in noting that Dow preached with a restlessness without parallel in human history. In the year 1804, for instance, he spoke at between five and eight hundred meetings; the following year he traveled some ten thousand miles. Three times he itinerated in the British Isles, and his personal impact there was the most important single factor in generating bitter debate over the issue of American-style 'camp meetings' within British Methodism. In 1807 he journeyed from New England to Florida, from Mississippi to New England; in 1808 through the West; in 1809 through Louisiana; and in 1810 through Georgia, North Carolina, and back to New England. Between 1800 and 1835, over seventy editions of a score of his writings were published throughout the union. There is no question that he preached to more people, traveled more miles, and consistently attracted larger audiences to camp meetings than any preacher of his day. From New York City to the wilds of Alabama, many attested that Dow was the most memorable preacher they had ever heard.
The most striking thing about Dow was that he was both a holy man, who cultivated the image of John the Baptist, and a radical Jeffersonian, who could begin a sermon by quoting Tom Paine. Dow sought the conversion of sinners at the same time that he railed at tyranny and priest-craft and the professions of law and medicine. He openly claimed to be guided by dreams and visions and implied that he possessed visionary powers to know the secrets of the heart and to foretell the fate of individuals. When asked to leave Saint Stephens, Alabama, for instance, he prophesied that, within a century, the town would become a roosting place for bats and owls and that no stone would lie upon another. He took great pains to make dramatic last-minute appearances at preaching appointments set up months in advance. And stories were rife of his uncanny power to pick out of an audience an undetected thief, rogue, or murderer.
Yet Dow also championed popular sovereignty and the responsibility of independent persons to throw off the shackles of ignorance and oppression. In his pamphlet Analects upon the Rights of Man, Dow grounded all human rights upon 'the great and universal "law of nature."' He condemned the radical distinction between 'gentlemen or nobility' on the one hand and 'peasants' on the other. 'The first will possess the country,' he suggested, 'and feel and act more than their own importance; while the latter are put on a level with the animals, and treated as an inferior race of beings, who must pay these lords a kind of divine honor, and bow, and cringe and scrape.' After questioning how such differences came to exist between persons, Dow responded with vigorous Jeffersonian rhetoric:
By what rule of right can one man exercise authority with a command over others? Either it must be the gift of God, or, secondly, it must be delegated by the people—or less, thirdly, it must be ASSUMED!Dow's appeal had much to do with his bizarre appearance—long hair parted like a woman's, weather-beaten face, flashing eyes, harsh voice, crude gestures, and disheveled clothes. He was also a captivating performer and remarkable storyteller who could evoke laughter and tears. Most important, he was able to touch two deep, and apparently contradictory, nerves within popular culture. He was able to depict his times as an 'Age of Inquiry,' in which individuals had to think for themselves and take matters into their own hands; and as an 'Age of Wonders,' in which the divine continued to permeate everyday life.
A power without a right, is assumption; and must be considered as a piece of unjust tyranny....
But if all men are 'BORN EQUAL,' and endowed with unalienable RIGHTS by their CREATOR, in the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—then there can be no just reason, as a cause, why he may or should not think, and judge, and act for himself in matters of religion, opinion, and private judgment.